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Navigating the Ph.D. Application Season

Taking the plunge

May 13, 2014

Black and white photo of a messy deskBill Cotter is a guest author and incoming dual PhD student in Anthropology & Linguistics at the University of Arizona. You can follow him on twitter @cotterw.

You’re fresh off your Bachelors or you’re in the final throes of your Masters and you see it coming over the horizon, PhD application season. You thought long and hard about the worth of a Doctorate and whether or not you should “just not go”, but in the end you decided to take the plunge. Navigating PhD application season is an intense and emotional experience to say the least. After a less than ideal first season and a successful second time around there are at least a few things that I’ve picked up which helped keep me on track, relatively positive, and somewhat sane:

  1.       Consider a Masters degree –There is little way around the price tag associated with a Masters degree, unless you’re lucky enough to get funding. Unfunded graduate work can be a painful and potentially demoralizing experience, and there are strong arguments against pursuing it without some kind of institutional support. Still, the training I received during my M.A. made it possible for me to be a competitive candidate in top programs the second time around. I had the chance to make contacts, conduct original research, present at conferences, and really learn what graduate school was all about. To put it succinctly, I’m an incoming PhD student now because of everything I learned during my M.A.
  2.       Make contact with faculty and students – This was by far the most useful piece of advice that I received. It’s often the case that you won’t hear back from faculty because they’re busy and have lives of their own, but it’s worth the effort. I heard back from a number of prospective advisors who told me very frankly whether or not they thought I was a fit for their departments. If my research and interests didn’t align with theirs, they usually offered me advice on other places to consider. In the cases where I did fit, it afforded me the chance to dialogue about my work and what I hoped to gain from the PhD. Contacting current students in these departments also allowed me to gain incredibly useful information about funding and get answers to other questions that I had. On another level altogether, it helped me make friends in the department(s) that I’ll be joining.
  3.       Focus on fit – A trap that I fell into during application season was applying to departments that had a high level of prestige and name recognition but little to offer me in the way of training and faculty, even if I thought they did. Do your research and find departments where your interests (and your personality) actually fit. Most of the rejections I received came not because I was a bad candidate, but because I genuinely didn’t fit with faculty or the department as a whole. In the end I got into my top choice program, but that happened because it was where my skills, interests, and personality aligned with faculty and students to the greatest degree.
  4.       Stay away from forums – For those unfamiliar with GradCafe, it’s an indispensible resource and also a den of misery during application season. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t compulsively check the results page or lurk in the forums to get some hint about when results might come in. However, I soon found myself reading and posting, trying to cope with my anxiety alongside others who were in the same position. In a way sites like that can be therapeutic, but they can also be incredibly detrimental. It made my anxiety about my applications even worse. I found that I was the most focused on my job, my friends, my research, and my life when I avoided thinking about applications altogether. Once they’re submitted it’s out of your hands and I think the most important thing to remember is that you have a life that needs to be lived.
  5.      Concentrate on deciding factors –You’ve put an incredible amount of time, energy, and money into these applications, so if you’re accepted to more than one making a choice is no laughing matter. It’s impossible to ignore the importance of funding, since it reflects a university’s level of commitment to you, while also keeping you fed and keeping your electricity on. In addition to funding I also spent time researching locations, curricula, and job placement track records. Most important on my list of concerns was how well I thought my research and personal interests fit with the faculty and PhD students that I met during recruitment weekend. Did the faculty actually seem interested in what I was doing or were they simply going through the motions? What does the department as a whole look like in terms of research and the personality of the people who comprise it? What is the department doing to enable their doctoral students in getting jobs in an uncertain employment market? Is this city/university an environment that will be conducive to completing a PhD? How happy are the PhD students with their program 4 years in, and can I actually see myself being happy here?

It’s important to remember that no one PhD application formula works for everyone. In the end, no one knows your work and your personality better than you do. You have to take stock of what you want out of a PhD and determine which universities or departments are going to help you succeed. In my mind, those are the places that should get your application.

What worked for you (or didn’t) during application season? And if you’re applying, what questions do you still have?

[Image by Flickr user orphanjones used under creative commons licensing.]


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